Letting Go

Isn’t it odd when books speak to one another, across centuries and wildly differing genres? First it was Austen’s Persuasion presenting me with a portrait of Anne Elliot’s perfect loyalty rewarded. Then it was Valley of the Dolls repeating the same theme but in much darker vein, with women’s loyalty standing as a cross that had to be borne, as if it were more like a disease than a virtue. Now to finish the trilogy, relatively new author, Aifric Campbell, presents loyalty as an inability to let go, and devotes her beautifully written novel to prising her heroine’s fingers away from the ghost of loves past. As time moves forward, so the notion of a love that endures regardless of separation and damage becomes increasingly viewed as a bad idea. Is this the result of changing attitudes, or just an intriguing coincidence?

In any case, Campbell’s novel, The Loss Adjustor, is a very good novel, if you like quiet, tender, thoughtful fiction. It’s the story of lonely Caro, thirty-something singleton who has never recovered from a childhood trauma and the loss of her first love. We know it all had to do with the friends who lived either side of her: Estelle, temperamental but clinging, and Cormac, cool and infinitely desirable. From the start we are told that this intertwined threesome comes to a sticky end, but it will take us until the very end of the book to find out exactly why it was that Estelle died young, and Cormac moved away, leaving Caro behind to hold a lonely but determined vigil for the hopes and desires that went with them.

Caro’s life in the present is organized around her frozen grief. She works without irony as a loss adjustor, hired by an insurance company to put a figure on the reparation of loss in times of accident and tragedy. Her nosy but well-meaning boss, Nicola, is continually prying into her private life, trying to find out what makes her so reticent, but she gets nowhere. Caro’s mother, her sole surviving parent, is not about to make a difference to her life either. A natural recluse, she has no need of her daughter and her insulated independence gives Caro another excuse to close in on herself. But someone is about to haul Caro into the present, albeit unintentionally. Visiting Estelle’s grave every weekend, Caro strikes up a unlikely friendship with the elderly Tom who is there easing his guilt towards his lost wife. The antics of his anti-social (but ultimately lovable) dog, Jack, bring the two of them together, and it is through the gentle unfolding of this relationship and the curious tale Tom will tell about his own childhood, that Caro comes to find a new peace of mind.

The basic premise of the book sounds like a repetition of any number of other novels – childhood trauma, lost love, an oddball pairing that brings unexpected release – but what raises this book above similar attempts at the same theme is the quality of the writing. Campbell’s style is very beautiful, very elegiac, very carefully composed (I’d almost have liked to see her let go a bit herself, only it wouldn’t have been in keeping with Caro’s voice), and the character of someone wilting under a burden of guilt so overwhelming that its edges can’t be found is perfectly evoked. The strongest parts of the book are almost the quietest ones, Caro imagining she can perceive the ghosts in the church courtyard produces some brilliant scenes. When I first began reading and found out that lost love Cormac had gained international fame as a rock star, I was afraid that part of the narrative would jar. But in fact, it’s well handled, with his superstar status taking him not just away from Caro, but out of her orbit entirely. In fact, the only part of the story that doesn’t quite reach fruition is the part about Caro’s job as a loss adjustor, an idea I loved, but which never becomes the potent symbol or cause for redemption that it ought to be. But never mind – literary fiction is so very hard to do that it is almost always a little flawed. The end, where the mystery of her childhood is finally revealed was as satisfying as it ought to be, and the conclusion just right. My overriding impression was that Aifric Campbell is a very intriguing author who should one day produce a really stunning novel. In the meantime, this is a very good one to be going on with.

11 thoughts on “Letting Go

  1. So you know, Litlove, I followed you here directly from your tweet, which appeared just above—that is, just after—my own in the stream of those I follow. You will have noticed, because you notice everything, that such themes of loyalty for love are rarely prominent in novels about men. Rather, love and all its permutations are employed to add resonance and depth to male characters, to humanize rather than characterize them. Were Caro a man, I imagine his job as a loss adjustor would be his personality and his romances would illuminate the job, instead of the other way around. Is there a trilogy to illustrate this theory I’ve now borrowed from you? I’ll do some reading and let you know!

  2. Is there a name for books with emotional secrets? Where the book is taken up with revealing emotional things, and it’s all suspensey but not in a thriller way? I feel like there should be a name for that, because it is a genre of books of which I am particularly fond.

  3. This sounds just marvelous. I tend to be a sucker for books about people haunted by childhood secrets, and if the writing itself is good, well, that’s a bonus.

  4. That theme of loyalty and love is an interesting one. I agree with David that male characters would not be expected to be so loyal (although Austen’s male heroes often are). I like the sound of this quiet and thoughtful novel. Was wondering if this was a mere appetiser for you as you work your way through the blockbusters.

  5. David – ah! Then it was worth my signing up to twitter! I’m glad, because at the moment it is making me feel ancient because I can’t follow the conversations. It’s been several weeks now so it must be me. I’d love you to do the reading and let me know what you find. Thinking about it, I can only come up with two examples of spectacular male loyalty, one Proust and his Albertine, the other Young Werther and Charlotte. In both cases, the love object is deeply desired and nothing more than a pretext for excavating the noble male soul. Surely this is not true to life? 😉

    Jenny – my goodness that’s a good question. I can’t think of a name and you are so right that there should be one. We need to scramble ‘suspense’, ‘secret’ and ’emotion’ together and make one fabby word. Alas, nothing brilliant springs to mind just yet. I will think on it.

    Teresa – It’s a genre of which I am particularly fond, too. 🙂

    Lilian – I’d love to know what you think of it, if you do get hold of it. I do think you might appreciate the quality of the writing.

    Everythinginbetween – well now, thank you so much for your kind words. I am so impressed by my technical prowess of late (which I owe entirely to the help of blogging friends!). Don’t worry, I’ll screw up my formatting soon and all will be back to normal. 🙂 And this is a lovely book, and interesting in a writerly way, too.

    Pete – this is another mental palate cleanser, as I try to decide between GWTW and the Thorn Birds. I just can’t make my mind up. Now you and David have got me thinking about loyal males. There must be some about, surely? Hmmm, I do love a taxing literary problem to ponder over…

  6. This sounds like a lovely book, quiet with secrets and a well done ending. Those aren’t all that easy to come by. As for loyal males, that is an intriguing thought I had never pondered before. What about Pip and Estella in Great Expectations? Or does “puppy love” not count? 🙂

  7. I have to echo David, Litlove…you do notice everything, and I envy all the gems you mine from your reading. That’s the benefit I get from reading something after you’ve read it and written about it. This book sound super and I plan on reading it.

  8. Stefanie – now THAT is a good one. We’ll mark up Great Expectations on the side of the boys. And it was a very thoughtfully, gently enjoyable book – you’re right that they’re rare!

    Grad – aww what a sweetie you are! You should talk to my husband – he’s not so keen on me noticing so much! 😉 I’d love to know what you think of this if you read it, and it makes my day always to think I can be involved in your (or any of my blogging friends’) reading lives.

  9. This sounds so good I had to go see if my library has it, but it seems it’s not yet published here. This is where I get myself into trouble…I sort of like the idea of a slightly flawed book, because it is true that really good literary fiction is hard to do–it makes it all sort of human somehow. I love stories where authors keep you at bay until the very end like this and she sounds like she does a wonderful job pulling the reader in!

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